Paste text without ugly formatting, and other ways Microsoft’s PowerToys can help you

A Black woman with orange, braided hair sitting in front of a silver Surface laptop, possibly using Microsoft PowerToys.

Behold: a power user. Surface / Unsplash

If you’re of an age to remember the launch of Windows 95 almost 30 years ago, you may also remember Microsoft PowerToys—add-ons the company built for its operating system and aimed at power users (hence the name). Guess what: they’re still around, and arguably cooler than ever.

After their launch, these utilities gained a cult following among a nerdier, geekier subset of Windows users—those who wanted to tinker and explore beyond the Windows wall. The original PowerToys let you, for example, play CDs from the taskbar, edit right-click context menus, and access the command prompt from anywhere.

The popularity of the add-ons continued with the arrival of Windows XP and a second version of PowerToys in 2001, which included a new set of utilities for creating custom keyboard layouts, and adding different time zones to the system clock. They also expanded the core Windows functionality with extras that were actually useful, such as live previews for switching applications with Alt+Tab, and the option to open a command prompt window from any folder.

With all that history behind them, it’s not surprising that the return of PowerToys caused such excitement—the past few years have been like the revival of a much-loved movie franchise from decades past.

The Microsoft PowerToys interface on Windows 11.
PowerToys for power users. Justin Pot

The latest breed of PowerToys for Windows 10 and 11 will also be rolling out as open source projects, so users can pick them up and customize them. Just visit the official download site in your browser, open the ZIP file, and follow the instructions on the screen to add the utilities. Once installed, you’ll see a little PowerToys icon down in the Windows notification area in the lower right-hand corner.

Load up PowerToys with a click on the notification area icon (or via the Start menu). You’ll see all kinds of goodies. Here are a few highlights.

PowerToys Run

Mac users are familiar with Spotlight, a fast search tool that can quickly open any application or file on an Apple computer. PowerToys Run brings this basic idea to Windows. Use the keyboard shortcut Alt+Space to open a search bar (you can customize the keyboard shortcut if you want), then type the name of any application or file on your computer to quickly open it.

Microsoft PowerToys Run, showing a search bar with Outlook typed into it.
Saving a few moments adds up over time. Justin Pot

It gets better. There’s a built in calculator: type any equation to see the answer and hit Enter to copy it to the clipboard. You can type “shutdown” and hit Enter to turn off your computer; other commands include “restart”, “lock”, “sleep”, and “empty recycle bin”. There’s support for searching your OneNote notebooks, if you use that program, and even for launching Shell commands. You can also launch any website—type the URL and hit Enter—and run web searches—type out your search terms and, you guessed it: hit Enter.

PowerToys Run can really change the way you use your computer: you can do almost anything without touching your mouse. Everything is faster with this tool—don’t overlook it.

Shortcut Guide

The Microsoft PowerToys Shortcut Guide interface.
With PowerToys’ Shortcut Guide, your mouse may become vestigial. David Nield

Speaking of not touching your mouse, take a look at Shortcut Guide. This is admittedly not a utility that will change your life, but it’s still one you may find useful if you want to learn how to get around Windows faster and boost your productivity along the way.

[Related: Become a Windows whiz by creating your own keyboard shortcuts along the way]

It’s really simple to use—tap the Windows key on your keyboard, and the Shortcut Guide PowerToy will bring up a window overlay showing some of the keyboard shortcuts you can use. To use any of the shortcuts, keep the Windows key pressed down and hit the other key listed.

For example, Win+A opens up the Action Center, while Win+M minimizes all the currently open Windows so you can get a look at the desktop. Over on the left you’ll notice shortcuts for snapping windows to either side of the screen, which can be useful for getting two windows up alongside each other.

If you spend a lot of time in Windows, you may be able to memorize these keyboard shortcuts fairly quickly, but it’s always good to have a cheat sheet so you can see how many options are available. Using the Windows key plus a number key is a useful way to jump  between different applications, for instance.

From the main PowerToys window, you can click Shortcut Guide to configure how long (in milliseconds) you’ll need to hold down the Windows key to get the shortcut overlay up, as well as the opacity of the background of the Shortcut Guide window overlay.

FancyZones

The Microsoft PowerToys FancyZones interface.
If you like to compartmentalize your life, you’re going to love FancyZones. David Nield

FancyZones was one of the earliest PowerToys available when the tools returned in 2019, and it lets you split your open windows into zones to keep your windows better organized. You can create themed zones for websites, office apps, browsing your computer, and so on.

Hit the Win+~ (tilde key) keyboard shortcut to launch FancyZones, or get the PowerToys Settings panel up on screen, switch to the FancyZones tab, and click Edit zones to customize the layout. A new dialog will appear, letting you choose how many zones you want and how they’re positioned. If you think you can do better than the templates provided, open the Custom tab on the right to make your own, or edit existing layouts by clicking Edit selected layout.

Back in the main tab, you can tweak a few details of the add-on: You can use the Shift key to drag windows into different zones (recommended), override the Windows Snap hotkeys (for fixing windows to the side of the screen), have zones flash when the layout changes (also recommended), and more.

With open windows on screen, hold down Shift, then drag a window into a zone to organize it. If you don’t enable the Shift key shortcut in settings, as described above, the zones will be enabled every time you move a window on screen.

Use the Focus layout, for example, to put together a tiered stack of windows, one on top of the other, all neatly arranged; or use the Priority Grid layout as a way to keep important programs front and center, with other apps down the sides of the screen. Once you get used to how it works, FancyZones can add a real boost to your productivity.

Paste as plain text

The Microsoft PowerToys Paste as Plain Text interface.
No more messed-up formatting with this PowerToy. Justin Pot

Anyone who writes on the internet for a living knows how annoying it is to remove formatting from text you copied. At least, it used to be—Paste as Plain Text seems to have saved the day.

When you copy text from a website—this one, for example—and paste it into another application, all the formatting choices tend to come with. This means that if you’re adding a quote from a website to a Word document, you don’t just paste the quote—you paste the quote in the exact font of the website you copied it from. This gets messy fast, and it happens everywhere: in emails, spreadsheets, and even design projects.

Paste as Plain Text lets you paste any text without the formatting, meaning it will match the formatting of whatever you’re working on. The default keyboard shortcut, Ctrl+Alt+Windows+V, is a little unwieldy, though you can change the keyboard shortcut in the PowerToys launcher, if you prefer. Anything you paste with this shortcut will be completely free of formatting. It’s simple but life-changing: no more spending time adjusting the font and size of text after you drop it into its new home.

More Microsoft PowerToys you should check out

Microsoft brought back PowerToys in 2019 with just a couple of tools. The collection has grown massively since then, and also works on Windows 11, meaning there are a bunch more PowerToys that are extremely useful and worth a quick mention.

  • Text Extractor allows you to copy text from any image. Use a keyboard shortcut to select text inside an image, and it’ll be copied to your clipboard.
  • Image Resizer can resize any picture in just a couple of clicks—right-click any image file, or multiple image files, in Windows Explorer, then click Resize pictures. You can customize the sizes, if you want, as well as what file format images are resized to.
  • Awake can temporarily keep your computer from falling asleep. Just click the handy coffee cup icon in your tray and you can choose whether to keep your computer awake indefinitely or for a set amount of time.
  • Screen Ruler allows you to quickly measure how many pixels a given area of the screen takes up.
  • Quick Accent makes it easier for Windows users to add accents to any letter, which is great for typing in languages like French and Spanish. Just hold the key you want to add an accent to until you see a popup, then use the arrow keys to choose which accent you want to add to the character.

And this is just to start—Microsoft keeps adding more toys to the box. Stay tuned: we’re sure there will be more.

This story has been updated. It was originally published on October 29, 2019.